Joseph Whiting Stock, John Jacobs (1848)

United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots: A True Tale of Slavery by John Swanson Jacobs (under contract with The University of Chicago Press)

Since 1855, John Swanson Jacobs’s The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots has been utterly lost—surviving only in libraries, attics, and wherever old stacks of unread newspapers go. In 2017, I accidentally discovered this astounding autobiographical slave narrative in an Australian archive, and, in the years of research since, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that, with the notable exception of his sister Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, this is the most important recovery of an autobiographical slave narrative on record. I do not make this claim lightly: no other narrative had so little impact at the time, had no afterlife, and was so completely forgotten. And no other slave narrative has so much to offer. John Jacobs was Harriet Jacobs’s only sibling and Frederick Douglass’s protégé. His narrative is likewise a major contribution to the tradition of frank Black protest that runs from David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) through Black Lives Matter.

Yet Despots is not the work of a full-time abolitionist, clergyman, or fugitive slave whose case was taken up by self-interested white publishers. It is the only known slave narrative written by a Black revolutionary sailor. It is likewise the only known slave narrative printed outside the transatlantic abolitionist network that linked the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Somehow, as a stateless refugee and migrant laborer working in Australia, Jacobs was able to turn an unenviable situation to his advantage, using it to demonstrate that his own unfiltered, unadorned words could stand alone as proof of his self-worth. For these and many other reasons, Despots is a work that opens up new horizons for the study of ethnicity, race, and migration.

Yet even as it vibrates with the prophetic intonation of the orator and the clamorous protest of the sailor, Despots does not tell us about John’s time at the podium and at sea. Like nearly all slave narratives, it is silent about its author’s life after slavery. Consequently, I am writing a book-length biography to accompany my critical edition of the narrative. Comprising seven chapters and an epilogue, this will be the first biography of John Jacobs, the first biography of the Jacobs men, and the most chronologically extensive history of a Black family from enslavement to emancipation, tracing the Jacobs family from the arrival of their first ancestors in the 1720s through the twentieth century. Despots should become an essential companion piece to Yellin’s Harriet Jacobs: A Life (2004), the biography that almost singlehandedly elevated Harriet Jacobs to her preeminent position in African American literature.